Women resist efforts to marginalize them in Peace Jirga

In the lead-up to the Peace Jirga that took place in Kabul from June 2 – 5, 2010, civil society activists were concerned about the intransparent procedures. The involvement of women in the event seemed crucial: Negotiations with the Taliban raise the question of how women’s rights will be affected. Women’s rights activists managed to lobby for a much stronger inclusion of women and raised the quote to about 20%. HBS has spoken to some jirga delegates to take their views on how successful women’s participation was. While the women’s role in the jirga was deemed a success, also in the future hard work will be required to make their voice heard.

Organizations for women’s rights in Afghanistan can be proud: While in the beginning the government considered to have only 20 women among the delegates, now more than 340 women joined the National Consultative Peace Jirga. This is due not only to lobbying of activists but more importantly to a long-term effort that started ahead of the London conference. Since January 2010, women activists have given in-depth thought to the question how their interests can be represented better in an ever more difficult environment dominated by conservative thought.

In all 28 working groups of the Peace Jirga there were female participants. First, a leadership committee was confirmed that consisted of four men. Due to the absence of two important allies of President Karzai in the jirga, Abdul Rasheed Dostum from the Uzbek side and Muhammad Ali Muhaqiq (Hazara), two male assistants from these ethnicities were attached.  On the second day, the demand for a real representative of women in the jirga chair was voiced so loudly, however, that it was decided to include Najia Zewari as a deputy chairwoman and representative of the women in the jirga. “In the first day, it was really not easy. Men would look away, they would not greet, it was many conservative men,” Dr. Soraya Sobhrang of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) accounts. “On the second day, however, it had changed. I think we found the right language. They would discuss with us, they would be more relaxed and even sometimes laugh.”

Officially, the invitation to the Peace Jirga was not extended to the armed opposition of Taliban and other militants. It should rather be discussed if and how to reconcile with them and engage only later. “Nonetheless, you had many men there who said they were with the Taliban, they were with Hizb-e Islami or even with the Haqqani group. They were not even trying to hide it. But maybe this was also because they wanted us to become afraid and consider well what we say there.” This could not hamper open discussion however. “Maybe one of the biggest achievements of the women’s presence in the jirga is that men noticed we are there, we are an integral part of this,” Dr. Soraya Sobhrang says who also is the winner of this year’s Frontline Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk.  “We managed to make sure we and our interests are not forgotten.”

Palwasha Hassan, a renowned expert on women in politics in Afghanistan and founding member of the Afghan Women’s Network AWN also expressed her appreciation of the achievements made for women with regard to the jirga. “The exposure was very good,” she says and she explains how the attitude of men changed over the short time of the jirga: “In the end, many of the speakers mentioned women’s rights. Whenever a man would mention women’s rights, the women in the audience would clap, and this apparently encouraged speakers to include it in their speeches.”

The next milestone will be the Kabul Conference. Palwasha Hassan is confident that efforts from women activists will be continued to ensure not only participation of women in the conference but also enhance the quality of their input. Since the Kabul Conference is expected to last only for a day, preparations are supposedly very important.

Another area civil society activists will certainly keep an eye on is a kind of “peace committee” whose establishment was decided upon in the jirga. The task of this committee will be to observe the government’s activity with regard to reconciliation efforts. However, the two-and-a-half days have not allowed for the specification of details. Neither is date nor mechanism for the establishment of the peace committee were settled. “This means it is dependent on the good-will of the government,” concludes one observer. So far, there has been no information on the potential members of the committee but there is a high probability that those who were involved in the organization of the jirga will be part of it. It seems this commission would be the right place for having human rights activists and civil society involved. “We’ll have to see but most likely is that the government will refer to its own people for selecting the committee.”

According to newspapers, even some of the warlords who used to be opposed to emancipation now publicly claimed to have changed their mind – even if it is only for practical reasons. Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chairman of the jirga, was quoted with: “We, too, once opposed the education of girls and equal rights to women. But we soon realized that such policies were impractical and unrealistic.”